Technical skills are crucial when it comes to handling emergency repairs and maintaining products, but true success in field service relies on more than industry expertise. Soft skills, such as empathy, are equally influential in ensuring client satisfaction, as they enable technicians to build strong customer relationships.

Jim Baston, a consultant with more than 35 years of experience in the services industry, advocates for soft skills as the key to growing your revenue and customer base. He developed an approach called “Proactive Service” that involves technicians in business development strategy through soft skills training. Last week, we talked to Baston about the value of teaching your workforce soft skills—and today, we delve into his tactical tips.

Most people think of soft skills as natural behaviors. How can managers teach these more “abstract” abilities?

We have what we call the “Five P” process, and it’s a very simple structure that walks technicians through organizing their thoughts and starting a conversation with the customer.

You start with “permission” — asking the customer, do you have a moment to talk about this? The second step is “problem,” or presenting a synopsis of the issue that the technician has identified. The next is “proposal,” and I don’t mean a formal, written proposal. It’s a casual offer of, “Okay, here’s what we could do to solve this particular problem.”

The fourth step is the “payoff” or presenting why the customer should consider doing this. And the last “P” stands for “pose.” It’s time to pose a question, which is really a call to action: “What would you like to do now?” That could be a sales call, or whatever makes the most sense for the next step.

How does the “Five P” process impact the way technicians interact with customers?

Starting a conversation is really about helping the customer understand the benefits of the technician’s recommendations. The real difference before and after the process is the comfort level of having those conversations and recognizing it as a service. The technicians’ relationship with the customer is based on trust, and that trust is based partly on the fact that they aren’t salespeople — we’re very careful to ensure that technicians recognize these conversations as a service, not sales.

For example, we did a workshop for an HVAC contractor several months ago now, and we actually invited some typical customers from the industry. The whole service team was able to see the role of the technician in bringing ideas to the customer. Customers don’t want to be sold ideas, but they certainly want to be informed. People came away from the exercise thinking, “My goodness, I never realized that customers would actually appreciate it if I talked with them like this.”

What first steps should a manager take to implement “Proactive Service” at his or her company?

Jim Baston

Jim Baston

First, you need to make sure management completely buys into the whole concept — they have to walk the talk.

Second, your processes need to be bulletproof. I often see situations where opportunities may be generated from the field technicians, but not properly followed up on. A technician might have an idea about how to solve a particular problem for a customer, then a salesperson goes in, talks to the customer, comes up with a solution, and it’s nothing like what the technician had envisaged.

The systems and the processes are a huge Achilles heel to the success of the program, so you need to place a lot of attention on ensuring that all the pieces are in place.

What are the results of adopting this approach?

Our clients are able to reduce the amount of emergency work, because they’re doing more proactive things for the customers. In turn, that helps manage labor, hiring and response time to customers’ needs.

We also see increases in contracts. For one client, the contract base went up through referrals by about 25 percent just over two years.

How can managers ensure that the program’s impact is sustainable?

The most important person in this entire equation is the sales manager. I attended a seminar by James Kirkpatrick on Training and Development a few years ago, and his research found that only 25 percent of learning effectiveness is based on the quality of training itself. The rest is based on what the manager did before the workshop took place, and how the manager acted after it took place.

Coming from the industry myself, I have a strong belief that my job as a trainer is to provide as much self-sustainability as possible. So, we have programs to help managers be better coaches and mini-workshops for them to use during their service meetings. The key is to continually reinforce important skills that were taught during the course.